Berlin: The Real 24-Hour City
This article was first posted on Unscene Berlin.
I am in a hallway in a turn-of-the-century community centre with high ceilings; the patchy walls are decked with fairy lights, protest posters peel from the yellowing walls. Every inch of the scuffed floors is filled with the shuffling feet of a rainbow crowd.
Dogs weave through a crowd of black and white Rastas, hippies with pastel dreads and randoms with out-grown, razor-cut hair do’s. Fresh-faced white activists & weary black men cross paths and chat. All around them, people are smiling & swaying in droves…
People squeezing their way down the hall slow as they pass by a group of Africans propping up a bar, in the middle of the hall. Passers-by are dragged in by the exhibitionist banter. The air is peppered with giddy outbursts of hilarity. Another exchange of stories and ideas ignites.
Hip hop and reggae throbs out of a spacious room, at one end of the hall. At the other end, clean-shaven hardtek fans in militant gear mill around a smokey 2nd room, pumping with adrenalized beats. Across the hall, on a 3rd dancefloor that’s awash in psytrance, Day-Glo patterns on silhouetted bodies jump out under the black lights.
It’s packed & we like it. A warm haze coats the throng moving through the rooms like a single, continuous entity, languidly sprawling. The fugue of faces is flushed with goodwill; optimism is all that holds them together. Updates are given about the comrades in jail that we came here to support. Earnest banter about the ones who made it through their battle with the asylum system, and the ones who were deported (or died) trying.
This is how Berlin rolls: dozens of tiny social ripples converge, colliding with you in a tide that leaves you whooping with delight on some days, fury on others…
This was the dynamic scene at a benefit party that I went to earlier this year. How did I learn about it? Not from looking at any of the snazzy & sensational posters papering Berlin’s crumbling brick walls, oozing borrowed grit like a caricature of the urban condition. No, I found out about it by reading a lot of low-key, black and white flyers… and going to demonstrations… and chatting to people… and checking out a lot of free fanzines & websites. Berlin’s nightlife is a punk-pop collage that can only be accessed via a mix-n-match of minutiae. There is just no one source for finding out about its definitive, spectrum-crossing parties. … there are just too many ways to get to there… too many avenues to follow.
You may find yourself in a place like New Yorck im Bethanien because you volunteer at a community center. Or because you read an article about the refugees, and you were casting about for a way to help them. Or because your punk mates live in the Wagenplatz around the corner, and you overheard the music as you were passing by. Or because you were a fan of one of the many DJ’s & bands there, and their allure pulled you out of your usual music scenes. Or maybe you were just hungry, and came because there was free curry being served in the hall.
The above party carried on till well past 8:00 a.m. in the morning. Serious dancing happened, enlightening discussions were had, fresh strategies were taking shape, all through the hours when mainstream institutions of entertainment, education and politics had switched off their ideals, put their aspirations to bed for the night. That’s because it was well-fueled by Berliners with a vested interest in its cause, like many of the best events here are.
Newsflash: they are having fun: by denying thatartificial ‘work-play’ divide, by laughing in the turbulent wake of the progress that they create and being true to themselves, whatever happens. Even here. In the Alternative Disneyland of Europe. Post-wall Berlin is an idealist’s city, after all. That means it’s also an activist’s city because, well, we live in a far from ideal world. So it stands to reason that its most authentic nightlife events are classified, not by styles, but ideologies. And that the people living here carry those ideologies all around the clock. They carry them at the party as well as before it, and after, and beyond.
To experience the real Berlin, then, you have to abandon the belief that having fun and being productive don’t mix. Parties that are grounded in a real need, aim or cause, have a much more positive vibe. Their atmosphere can’t be beat, even by the most hedonistic club in Berlin. They can afford to careen in ethereal directions because they are grounded in a solid one. And that is to help real people who are dealing with real situations… yes, even at night, and even when they’re “supposed to be having fun”.
At the end of the day, authentic Berlin nightlife is just a nocturnal version of its day life. It really is a 24-hour city. Since the fall of the Wall, it hasn’t been rigidly divided, the way that most Western cities have: into ‘good’ parts and ‘bad’, ‘rich’ parts and ‘poor’, ‘professional’ spheres and ‘personal’ (not yet, anyway).
In other Western cities, there’s always a center where nobody lives, that has a ‘nightlife strip’ with two or three big, corporate clubs that are open fixed hours, cost a fortune to get into, where you have to be drunk to enjoy being there. People at them are always in a hurry lose their inhibitions and be ‘someone else’ for a few hours before going home and feigning shock at the depths of their own depravity (or blotting the memory of it out with a few more drinks).
To understand Berlin, you have to understand that the lifestyle in those cities has changed the way that you think about having fun. You’ve probably been at least slightly seduced by the idea that a celebration is something that you can pay to get… like a pizza. Or, that it’s something that happens to someone else; a seat in the audience is the best you can hope to get unless you’re off your head, watching from outside your body as you go leave your mind. That’s a very consumerist model of celebration though, and Berlin wants to remind you of that fact. It almost gleefully leaves you clueless about where to go, what to do & where to start as if to say, “Just do it yourself!”
Clubs here will provide you with just the bare minimum props that you need to set the stage for a celebration: four walls, basic bars with soft drinks, beer and sometimes wine and spirits, toilets, loads of space to dance or chat or sit, indoors and out. But a celebration needs a cause, and only you can provide that. Bring what matters to you most and share it, and others will do the same. No amount of credit cards are going to help you, in this town.
Everything here happens in the security of a venue that seems as familiar as a living room, with flowery armchairs and sagging sofas, regardless of the time of day. Many clubs, bars and cafes in Berlin look like they are living rooms. Even the regular doses of alcohol, drugs and eccentric thinking there are a permanent fixture of many Berlin flats.
One-off bursts of crazed enthusiasm are as rare in the day as they are at night, in Berlin. Yet the city’s 24-hour, subtle weirdness can give rise to bizarre, unplanned ‘WTF?’ imagery. Anyone wandering around with a camera, however, and hoping to catch them in the act, will have a long wait between ‘Kodak moments’. They’ll also be putting paid to any hopes of participating in those moments.
Standing obediently on the sidelines watching the strangeness of a city with no rules seems like a tragic waste of its freedom. Like going to Rome just to watch TV in your hotel. Or reading a tabloid paper in the Louvre.
In other cities, outlandish spectacles can always be found on-stage in super-clubs and mega-concert halls, while experiences of localculture are rare. Interactive experiences are rare. Meanwhile, every night that I go out in Berlin, I have to learn something new: how to find my way there, how to approach new people. I have to open my mind to the reality that yet another hitherto unknown nook of the city has just opened its door to me. It requires a state of constant acceptance, a realization that the nightlife, the day life, and the city skyline are a work-in-progress.
Maybe that’s a source of frustration for some travellers, if they’re here for a short time. They can’t just walk into the right joint or street, switch their brains off, and let the torrent of fun sweep them away. But (un)luckily for them, there are some clubs here that cater to their expectations. Sort of. Well, they’re full of non-residents (or new residents that haven’t really settled in yet) but they do play Berlin music.
I won’t name any [other] names here but to me, a classic example of that kind of joint wasBar 25, which closed in 2010. It looked like many of the good clubs here do… a crazy granny’s attic in a shanty-town carnival. But the place was always packed with unresponsive tourists on ketamine, shuffling from the cheap bar to the packed dance floor like bloated diners at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Everyone seemed angry: the tourists, because they couldn’t find the authentic experience they’d been looking for, and the locals, who thought the tourists were bringing the vibe down with their alien expectations. Places like that led to an understandable backlash, especially in clubs with a similar concept (like Wilden Renate and Sisyphos). For a while it was a righteous pain in the arse to get into many clubs, thanks to the Bar 25 effect.
But then, being inaccessible has often been Berlin’s defense mechanism. I guess it was a misguided attempt to avoid becoming impersonal and bland, by avoiding tourists who fit the wrong bill. But thankfully, the way that Berliners resist commercialization has changed in the last five years. In 2010, for example, illegal openair parties were pretty mundane… but they were hard to find. The challenge of finding them was what made them ‘edgy’, I suppose. It seemed that Berlin’s party scene equated authenticity with inaccessibility.
These days, the people doing free parties are much more “in your face”. They’re bolder, easier to find, and they seem to put more of their subversive energy into producing cutting edge sounds, a dynamic atmosphere, or radical ideas. The new ‘underground’ is probably more like the old one of pre-gentrification Berlin. If the party scene is getting back to its roots, though, it’s doing so the help of the out-of-town crowd, not by avoiding them. Crews from the festival and rave circuit from France, Italy, Spain, the UK, and further afield seem to be playing a way more active role in the scene, these days, and their style is mixing it up with the local scene. I think that’s a sign that the city’s passing out of its reactionary phase, and starting to embrace the rest of the world.
This is necessary. At the end of the day, the squatters, the activists, the students, the starving artists and musicians that define Berlin are being driven out of it, not by foreigners, but by rich people who are from Germany and the rest of the world. The problem isn’t their nationality, it’s the flawed, universal business model that they bring with them, based on eternally increasing profits. They create pointless hierarchies and harbour unsustainable fantasies of exclusivity and getting to the top, and seem to be constantly looking for ways to turn free aspects of this city into ‘profitable’ (e.g. expensive) enterprises. The people that they displace need to be replaced by fresh blood, people with the same egalitarian dreams as their predecessors, regardless of where they’re from. And their dreams have no borders.
So before you launch into a rant about how ‘overrated’ Berlin is, or how hard it is to find the cool area, or how dead the place is when you finally find it, take a deep breath and remember: you’re not alone in your bewilderment. We’ve all been there… we’ve all felt lost in this city, at times. Adapting to Berlin’s unique style and rhythm may not be fast or straightforward, but it is the best way (the only way) to get a handle on its nightlife.
You’re not supposed to ‘get’ Berlin right off the bat. Getting it is the constant process of learning what makes it tick, what kind of city it is and what the people here want it to be, and where your dreams fit into all that. It’s the mystery that drives people out onto the streets every weekend, to new places, trying new things. It’s what fills up new venues with eager new audiences, lured by yet another mystery. Another promise of an answer, and that answer comes from people, not profit.
People who live here have just accepted the uncertainty that goes with that. We’ve made the leap, decided to lose ourselves and enjoy the sense of unexplored avenues, unfinished business trailing like torn streamers in the wind. Maybe you have to return to a structured, time-strapped world, where everything has to come to a conclusion on a fixed timescale, and maybe being here can teach you something about how to break free from that world, if you want it to. But first, you’ve got to put your camera down and start exploring.
“Never mind if it’s ‘impossible.’ What else can we hope to attain but the ‘impossible’? Should we wait for someone else to attain our true desires?”